Cruise to Antarctica- Newsletter #2

Cape Town, S. Africa-February, 1999

Without doubt the past three months have provided some of the finest cruising I have ever known. I hope this newsletter will do justice to the experience. Since we left Puerto Montt we have sailed in areas of awesome grandeur and yet, because of the cold climate, sparsely populated. High winds have been fairly common, in the Chilean ‘canals’ securing the boat for the night was often difficult. I am lucky that my crew, Mike and Bruce, are young and enthusiastic and accepted some hardship as part of the fun. In many ways the sense of accomplishment felt on reaching some of the remoter anchorages was augmented by the struggle to get there. We left Puerto Montt with the intention of taking a month to negotiate the labyrinth of islands and narrow channels that form southern Chile=s west coast. On our left we had the magnificent snow-covered Andes towering above us. At first, in the vicinity of Chiloé, the countryside was pastoral with farms and small fishing villages. Within a week this changed, even to the west the islands were steep and forbidding. There was almost no habitation. In fact, we found only two isolated small communities after we left Chiloé. Perhaps you can get a feel for the people and places if I tell you about one of them; Puerto Eden. This was obviously named in the same spirit that led Eric the Red to call Greenland – Greenland. It is hardly a Garden of Eden. A community of about three hundred souls live clustered on the side of a steep hill around a small bay. There are no vehicles, there is nowhere else to drive to. A mile or so of boardwalk connects the houses at either end of the village. There are two or three tiny shops. When we dropped anchor opposite the small school it was late afternoon. We rowed ashore, it was rocky and covered with weeds. Some men were repairing a small wooden boat, beached at low tide. With our poor Spanish we asked them if there was a restaurant – they were baffled. Later, when we discovered how poor the village was, we realized the question was ridiculous. Nevertheless, some- how we were directed to a small house a few yards away, nothing more than a two-roomed hut really, where a sprightly rather plump middle-aged woman agreed to make us dinner. We sat in the kitchen cum dining room, a large wood-fired stove kept the place cosy. The planks forming the outside wall were ill-fitting and I could see daylight through the cracks. Cloth tacked over the gaps kept out the draught. Through a curtained doorway I could see into the other room, a sort of living room, bedroom combination. Despite the basic nature of the house they had a TV, VCR and hifi system. She fed us a good meal of salad (onions and tomatoes), potato and fish and an odd sweet, followed by coffee. We also had a glass of wine. Not bad for $6 each.   We arranged with her to buy four loaves of bread in the morning, which she would bake. The first thing we had to do in the morning, however, was replenish our fuel. Puerto Eden was our last chance to get diesel before we arrived in Puerto Williams, near Cape Horn.   The fuel was kept in drums near a small, run-down jetty. We had to pump it by hand into our jerry jugs. After that we tried to buy fresh vegetables or fruit, but the small shops were shut. When I went to pick up the bread another lady was there with a large purple bag. In it was a selection of new clothes she was peddling. I looked at them in a perfunctory way but I wasn’t buying – I had spent all my pesos on diesel fuel. At this she made a moue´ and in voluble spanish wanted to know how an honest woman could make a living if rich gringos didn’t buy her stuff. Guilt-stricken I offered to pay in US dollars. She rushed off for a consultation with someone in the village about the worth of a dollar, on her return I bought a plaid shirt. Good value, too. After that we all took a walk along the shore and returned to the boat to await the Port Captain, who had promised to bring over the papers authorizing us to proceed to Puerto Williams. It was happy hour when he showed up – he really enjoyed our rum. He wanted to know if he could help us further in any way, so I asked him to get us a few onions and some fruit. As incentive I gave him a bottle of Mount Gay rum from our cache. He returned a couple of hours later with a large plastic bag that heaved and bulged in a funny way – what on earth was inside? The answer was four king crabs, all alive-o, that’s what. The seaman he brought with him rapidly despatched two to crab heaven by ripping their bodies apart. I shuddered and we cooked the legs in our largest pan.

I shall always remember the first big glacier we sailed to – the Pio XI glacier, about three miles wide. A river of ice snaking down between two mountains whose snowy tops were lost in clouds. As we got close, we had to pick our way through a myriad floating ice pieces that had broken off the glacier. We put our bowsprit up against one medium-sized berg and chipped some antique ice for our happy hour drinks. As we got further south the days lengthened and got colder. I was amazed at how old the towering rocks on either side looked. They were grey and scarred but smooth, as though they had spent a million years being ground down by ice.   Hardy vegetation clung to the lower slopes and in crevasses. The trunks of the small trees were bowed horizontal to stay out of the wind. Our anchorage each night was usually a small, deserted, cove in which we could tuck ourselves out of the wind. Usually, pristine streams emptied onto the sea. Bruce often went fly fishing and once caught several trout. In one narrow pass we were caught by a williwaw, a strong gusty wind, that knocked us over and put the whisker pole in the water, but FIONA is a tough old lady and no damage resulted. As we traversed the western reaches of the Magellan Strait the weather was, quite frankly, terrible. Frequent rain, hail and sleet with strong winds and temperatures in the 30’s. We wore heavy clothing and our foul weather gear all the time on deck. In the narrow channels we usually hand steered as we could not trust the self-steerer in the gusty winds. The guy at the wheel got frequent infusions of hot drinks and soup passed up from the cabin, where the heater ran most of the time. We had an interesting, if not unique, experience in the Cockburn channel, which runs southwest from the Magellan to the south side of Tierra del Fuego. After a rough day, which began very early when we were literally blown out of our anchorage by 45 knot winds (the anchor dragged, so rather than reset it, we just left), we finished with a hard beat against wind and current up to a large bay called Niemann harbor. Once inside the bay, conditions were much more moderate and we searched for a suitable spot to spend the night. To our amazement we found the best little sheltered cove had been annexed by another yacht, which was lying with four lines ashore. It was an American boat and we gave them a call on the radio. A middle-aged couple came out into the cockpit, as amazed as we were to see FIONA bobbing a few feet away. They had been there three or four days, waiting for a break in the weather. We found another cove about a mile away and secured ourselves with the anchor and three lines to trees on shore, then we talked to the Americans on the VHF radio. They were in contact with a large yacht they had met further north, which belonged to a wealthy New Zealander. A professional captain, his wife and a crew member were bringing the boat to Ushuaia (near Pto Williams, on the Argentinian side of the Beagle channel) so the owner could board her for a trip to Antarctica. The next day it was arranged that all three of us would meet at an anchorage on the southwest side of Tierra del Fuego. It was a spectacular setting, the anchorage was a huge natural amphitheater forming almost a complete bowl. Vast mountains soared above on three sides. Lakes above the bowl fed sparkling waterfalls.   All three yachts rafted together with a dozen lines ashore. That evening we had a pot luck dinner on the luxurious New Zealand boat (70 ft long) and screened a video of Hal Roth and his wife negotiating these same Chilean canals twenty five years earlier. As it is very rare to see another boat, let alone another yacht, it is hard to imagine that three yachts had ever rafted up before in this lonely spot. At the western end of the Beagle channel I noticed the character of the mountains had changed – no longer smooth and scarred they were sharper with a jagged skyline. These mountains, however, protect the eastern end of the channel from the fierce westerlies that sweep across the Pacific Ocean (the Beagle is about 55°S) and the countryside took on a softer appearance – a little grass showed on the shore. Puerto Williams is on Navarino Island, which lies south of Tierra del Fuego. On a nice day it is very pleasant, we took several walks through the woods B beavers were introduced in the 1940’s and their dams are everywhere. The port is run by the navy, basic supplies are available. The yacht club must be one of the most exotic in the world – it is an old freighter, sunk in a small creek off the Beagle. There is a wonderful bar in the old wheel house with a roaring fire every night and souvenirs on the bulkheads from the many visiting yachts and expeditions. The port has an interesting museum dedicated to the extinct Yaghan Indians, who inhabited this region for millennia before the arrival of whites. Disease and deliberate extermination finished them off within a century.

From Puerto Williams we headed south, leaving on Christmas Day. We anchored for the night at a small island in the Beagle between Argentina, on the north, and Chile on the south. In the 1970’s this island and several nearby were the subject of a territorial dispute over which the two countries nearly went to war. In fact they still have a very chilly relationship in this part of the world. To maintain their hold the Chilean Navy stations a man in a house on shore. We rowed over to show our papers. He was delighted to see us – his wife made tea and gave us home-made cake. The officer had his wife and two children with him, otherwise they were alone. The posting was for a duration of a year – I didn=t envy them. The next day we were trapped by a 45 kt gale which blew out after twentyfour hours and then we left to sail past Cape Horn and out into the Drake Passage. As we sailed south the short nights faded entirely, below 60°S it was light all day. My first glimpse of Antarctica was Smith Island, part of the South Shetland group which fringe the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. It rose vertically out of the sea, the top was shrouded in cloud and the sides were a stark study in black and white.   There is no vegetation whatsoever in Antarctica, that I could see. We threaded our way in the strait between the Shetlands and the mainland under powerful easterly winds – a feature of Antarctic summer I hadn’t appreciated before. The sea was dotted with icebergs. As we approached Port Lockroy the ice became quite dense in places and we finally dropped the sails and motored slowly through the ice, jinking from side to side to avoid striking any large pieces. Port Lockroy consists of a few huts on a small island in a bay which is part of Wiencke Island. Activity started here in the 1940’s when the British started a secret radio station to relay weather information during WWII. After that it became a scientific research base with emphasis on ionospheric investigation. In the 1960=s it was abandoned. Following an Antarctic Treaty that required countries to operate or remove the detritus of their activity the Brits restored a couple of huts and made them a live-in museum of 1950’s scientific work. During summer (November to March) two men occupy the huts living just as they did 50 years ago – lots of canned food and kerosene lanterns. They operate a small post office and rooms are set up with scientific gear of the era. Lockroy is frequently visited by the small cruise liners that bring the more adventuresome tourists to Antarctica. We arrived on New Year’s Eve and were invited ashore by the residents. We took some rum and champagne, it was quite a night in their little hut, eating cottage pie and swigging our Caribbean rum in front of the wood-fired stove. I shall remember the start of 1999 for a long time.

The Brits share the small island they live on with a penguin rookery. This has its drawbacks, which you will appreciate if you have ever smelt one. Another problem for them is fresh water. When the ice is firm they can walk to Wiencke Island for pieces of ice to melt. But when we arrived the so called ‘fast’ ice was melting (in fact lumps of it kept floating by, occasionally bumping into the boat), and uncontaminated ice on their island was hard to find. The resident scientists have no boat, so one afternoon we gave one of them a lift to a nearby island in our inflatable to search for a skua’s nest he had roughly located using binoculars.   Besides all the nesting penguins, skuas, terns and cormorants there was a complete whale skeleton on the shore, a relic of the old whaling days. Further onshore were dozens of staves off old wooden barrels from the same era. We left via the Peltier channel, which was like sailing down a canyon of ice. At the Bismarck Strait we headed north, this was our furthest south; 64° 53’S. We had heard reports of thick ice just a few miles further south from the cruise liners. If they couldn’t make it, I wasn’t going to risk FIONA’s fragile glass hull. The NE’ly wind died as we headed out and we powered to Deception Island. This is an ancient volcanic crater several miles across. The entrance is through a break in the crater wall, called, dramatically, by the old whalers “Neptunes Bellows”, due to the erratic winds that funnel in and out. Once inside there are the remains of an old whaling station, inundated by a volcanic eruption many years ago. The buildings and machinery are half buried in ash. You can still find coal, old cans and all the junk abandoned by the whalers. There is also a small hangar still containing the wings and fuselage of a plane. At low tide hot streams run into the sea, causing a mist of steam to rise and reeking of sulfur. The bottom of the bay is extremely irregular, with ridges almost up to the surface of the sea, but 20 feet deep a few yards away. The rapidly falling tide caught me unawares, and FIONA grounded fast, lying on her bilge as the tide went out. We were in this embarrassing position when a small Russian cruise liner entered the harbor and called on the radio to see if we needed help. I assured them we would refloat on the next high tide, so they invited us over for lunch! The ship was a former Russian ice breaker called the “Professor Malcanov”, under charter to an Australian company. While the Australian tourists wandered through the buildings on shore, we changed the zincs on the propeller shaft, which became accessible as FIONA settled on her side at low water. Then we went over to the Russian ship. I am afraid we were obviously regarded as part of the local entertainment put on for the tourist’s benefit as myself, Mike and Bruce were divided up to sit at different lunch tables and invited to spin our yarns. When we returned, the tide was making up and FIONA was soon free. The captain was nice enough to give us a 100 liters of diesel fuel. From Deception we sailed along the north side of the South Shetland group, past the last one, Elephant Island, and into the Scotia Sea, heading for South Georgia. In 1916 Ernest Shackleton and five companions made the same passage in a 22 ft ship’s whale boat and entered into Antarctic folklore. Their ship, “Endurance”, had been crushed in the ice further south months earlier. They floated north living on ice floes and finally sailed to Elephant Island in three small boats. They had no radio, their only hope of a rescue was to make it to the whaling station on South Georgia, about 700 nautical miles away. Shackleton left most of his men on Elephant Island and made the trip in one of the boats. Conditions were horrible for them, as we sailed the same route I could only wonder at their stamina. We had a comfortable, heated, boat almost twice as long as theirs but it was not a joy-ride. The water temperature was a freezing 32°F. We had heavy swells that broke the shaft of the servo blade on the self steerer. The winds reached gale force a couple of times. Ultimately Shackleton made it, organized a rescue expedition for the men left behind and got them all home without loss of life. We sailed along the north coast of South Georgia with a strong wind behind us. On our right the rugged outline of the high mountains was sharply etched in black and white against a deep blue sky. It looked like a painted backdrop. South Georgia is about the same size as Long Island, N.Y., but instead of millions of people there are millions of penguins. We headed for Grytviken, the site of the largest whaling station, founded by Norwegians in 1906 and operated for nearly sixty years. As we sailed into Cumberland Bay the scenery was magnificent. Several glaciers emptied into the bay – ahead was the 9000+ ft white edifice of Mount Sugartop slashed with jet black. When we approached the settlement scores of birds wheeled overhead with shrill cries. Fur seals gamboled in the water and on shore crowds of King penguins looked at us nervously. The buildings at Grytviken are extensive, nearly a thousand people worked there at its peak, but most are now in ruins. Half-sunken whale catchers lie at crumbling jetties. At King Edward Point, about half a mile to seaward, are some well-maintained buildings first built to house scientists but now occupied by a score of British soldiers and the harbor master. South Georgia was briefly occupied by Argentina in 1982 and the troops are there to prevent a repeat. We dropped anchor near the shore. Ahead of us was a sailboat famous to a generation that learned to sail in the 1950’s and 60’s, it was Eric Hiscock’s “Wanderer III”, now belonging to a young Danish couple. Tied up to one of the derelict whale catchers was “Curlew”, an engineless 28 ft. boat over a hundred years old, she was sailed to South Georgia eight years ago by Tim and Pauline Carr. The Carrs run a great museum in a renovated building. There are sections on the natural history of the island, the Shackleton expedition, whales and the operation and life at Grytviken in its heyday. Apart from the early years the factory was designed to use every part of the whale, including the bones. Wandering through the buildings I was extraordinarily impressed by the difficulty they must have experienced in erecting and operating the complex boilers, generators, cutters, centrifuges, etc., in such a harsh climate. All this effort and it resulted in the virtual extermination of the whale species, about 175,000 whales were killed at Grytviken during its working life; 500,000 in the Antarctic as a whole; a holocaust indeed. Quite early on, scientists warned of this likely outcome and government regulations were put into effect to limit the yearly catch. They were circumvented by the whalers who built factory ships that operated on the high seas; out of reach of the regulators. In the end Grytviken closed simply because it became uneconomic to pursue the few remaining whales. Some types, the Blue whale for example, may be so few in number that they will die out. An optimistic note, however, is that fur seals, also hunted to the brink of extinction, are now making a spectacular come back. These seals are quite aggressive on land and I was chased by two of them along the beach while they made blood-curdling barks.

One night Pauline and Tim gave a little party at the museum and showed over a hundred slides of expeditions they had made on skis to the interior. We also got invited to the mess at the army base and the harbor master let us use the shower in his cosy living quarters.   As you can tell, everyone was very hospitable. Under sail on the evening of the day we left Grytviken a huge iceberg materialized out of the gloom – on the radar it was a mile across, with an absolutely flat top and vertical sides, it had obviously calved on the ice shelves in the Weddell Sea, to our south. It was our last glimpse of Antarctica. On the way to Tristan da Cunha the nights got longer, the sea water got warmer and the wind howled, at least for the first part. The usual gear failures followed but we kept the boat sailing and we arrived off this lonely island early in the morning of the tenth day out. The settlement of about 300 people is nestled on a small plateau under a brooding volcano. In 1961 it erupted and all the islanders were evacuated to England for a couple of years. The community was founded in the early 1800’s by a soldier who stayed behind when the military garrison, posted there to guard the southern approach to St. Helena, Napoleon’s place of exile, was disbanded. They are largely self sufficient, growing vegetables and fishing. We only managed to stay a few hours as the anchorage is an open roadstead and FIONA rolled violently in the ocean swell. But we did manage to launch the inflatable and get ashore. We bought a few supplies at the small supermarket, visited the museum and post office and sent e-mail messages from the administrator’s office. About a dozen graceful sailboats were parked on the shore: they sail them to two nearby islands for guano which is used as fertilizer. Like Pitcairn Island, which I visited a few years ago, I got the feeling on Tristan that the people live an intense, closed life which outsiders simply cannot penetrate, especially in a few hours.

We had mostly light winds and calms on the way to Cape Town – typical of the high pressure cells that move across the South Atlantic in these latitudes. We made contact with an amateur radio net in South Africa run by a friend of Mike=s father. As a consequence Mike’s parents drove down to meet us in Cape Town. The 1,500 nautical mile leg took us eleven and a half days. As dawn broke, Table Mountain was silhouetted against the pink sky. Welcome to Africa. Total mileage for cruise so far is 15,129 n.m.